An Interview With Christopher Stephens

Christopher Stephens, the new Chairman  of the Judical Appointments Commission, talks to Counsel’s David Wurzel about the Commission’s aims and his role.

“I arrived knowing very little in February”, Christopher Stephens, the new Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission (the “JAC”) confessed when I met him in September. Since then, he says, “I have learned my way through your profession”. He did however have a head start in respect of recommending people for appointments:  before becoming a Civil Service Commissioner and a member of the Senior Salaries Review Board he spent 30 years in Human Resources.


Since February he has had some 90 meetings with the judiciary, officials in the sponsoring Ministry of Justice, diversity groups, the professions and other interested parties. He has been to court 13 times, ranging from the Supreme Court to tribunals to the magistrates’ court. He has begun to tackle a host of issues. One of the more immediate concerns is the appointment of eleven new members of the Commission (out of a total of fifteen) whose terms of office end on 31 January 2012. Having been appointed on a two-days a week basis he unsurprisingly has been doing four.

We first discussed diversity. Stephens’ own credentials here are impeccable. As he told the Justice Select Committee last January, as a Civil Service Commissioner he had been involved in sending back a male-only candidate list and saying, “That isn’t good enough. I want to see some women and other candidates on the list too”. That flexibility is not available to the JAC, who are obliged by Parliament to appoint solely on merit and who can only work from the pool which presents itself in each selection exercise. The JAC works with other groups to help them nurture the candidates. On the morning of our meeting he had met with the chairman of the Legal Services Board and endorsed David Edmonds’ intention to make diversity “a major theme of the next three years”. There is the Judicial Diversity Taskforce set up after Baroness Neuberger’s report and which is supported by now successive governments.

There is the JAC’s own diversity forum, begun by his predecessor, Baroness Prashar. She wisely decided to share the leadership with other bodies such as the Law Society and the Bar Council who take turns in chairing it, thus putting them “in the hot seat”. There is thus “shared accountability”. He proudly showed me the JAC’s own figures which compare the first five years of the JAC with 1998-2006 in terms of the raw numbers and the percentages of women and of BME candidates who are being appointed. Women and BME candidates now stand a better chance of being selected. “Our process is working”.

This - astonishingly to me - has however led white male barristers to think that there is no point in them applying. The current advertisement for the selection of High Court judges in the Chancery Division, which is being launched in October along with one for circuit judges, contains the catch phrase, “Some barristers do not believe we select solely on merit: reserve your judgment”. In fact since 2007, 49 women and 6 BME applicants have been selected for the circuit bench and 10 women and two BME candidates for the High Court, hence Stephens’ description of the JAC’s achievements so far as “modest but significant”. He worries about the diversity figures for QC’s, who are among the candidates for High Court appointments. They are still 89% male and 95.7% white. He looks forward to the Chancery competition in October since there are five places to fill. “The joy of having five vacancies is that one would hope to have a diverse spread of candidates” and it is easier when there is a cluster like this rather than one here or there. There is also no requirement of previous judicial experience.

At the same time, competition for appointments is becoming hotter. Last year there were 4684 applications for 684 appointments, so nearly a seven to one ratio. Stephens is keenly aware of the need to refine the recruitment process, to make it easier, less expensive, less lengthy and “more sure of its outcomes”. He knows that the JAC has been criticised for being too expensive and too slow. The average cost per application has been halved since 2007-8 and the budget is now less than it was four years ago. The number of staff has gone down from 105 in 2009-10 to 77. As for speed, he sees this as the “20/20 challenge”. Depending on the size and complexity of the competition, the JAC’s selection process can take 20 weeks but the overall process from planning the exercise to the appointment being taken up can be 20 months. “I believe our candidates hold us responsible; we are the people with the name on the tin”. He has no illusions about the difficulty of the challenge and about the length of time it will take before months can be trimmed off the process. “I don’t expect it to be easy and I am not the first person to have a go at this”. He attributes the problem to the issue of several organisations with lots of different people being involved. He knows that delay is not good for the court system or the candidates and that it can deter good people from applying.

As for the appointees themselves, “I very seldom hear” someone saying, “you are making poor appointments”. What he does hear is “you missed a gem there”. He knows that the JAC has missed some excellent people. There are not as many vacancies as there are able candidates, and many of those applying are outstanding indeed.

Stephens defends the much-discussed Recordership tests, which are variously criticised for being either “too criminal” or “not criminal enough”. Each one is tailor made; it is examined by a judge and tested on real people, and then put forward to a forum of judges and the professions. He is sure it is a good way of discriminating between the more and the less able not least because it requires the candidates to demonstrate a sense of judgment. Stephens especially emphasised here something he was only becoming aware of, which is that not everyone has realised how carefully they had to prepare for the selection process.

It is extremely demanding and cannot be “done on a blink”. A serious amount of work needs to be done, and in order to get it right, applicants need to look at the website, previous papers, and to talk to colleagues who had been through the process, both those who were successful and those who were not. “People busk it” nevertheless; he has seen some embarrassing applications. He also hopes that judges and professional associations will urge colleagues to put in an application and to assure them that the process is fair.

At the very end, Chris Stephens pointed out one innovation the JAC is working on, which showed both his commitment to modernisation and I suspect the essential kindness of the man. They are thinking of developing online testing, which the candidate can do at home, rather than in the examination hall. Barristers, not uniquely, like succeeding but they would rather nobody knew it when they failed.

BIOGRAPHY

Christopher Stephens

Christopher was appointed Chairman of the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) in February 2011.  Prior to this, he was a Member of the Senior Salaries Review Board (since 2009) and a Civil Service Commissioner (2004-2009).

Christopher is non-executive director of WSP, a global engineering consultancy, and Holidaybreak plc, a travel and education business.  He was Chairman of Traidcraft (until March 2011) and Chairman of the DHL (UK) Foundation (until May 2011), a charity committed to community development and education projects both in the UK and worldwide. 

Until 2004, he was Group Human Resources Director of Exel (now DHL), the international logistics company.

Further infomation

JAC and Bar Council candidate seminar, focusing on the selection exercises in October and November.

Friday 25 November, “Managing Career Breaks” seminar, with an input on judicial opportunities.

JAC and Bar Council candidate seminar, focusing on the Deputy District Judge (Civil) selection exercise.

Full details will be available under “candidate seminars” on  http://jac.judiciary.gov.uk/

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.